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Library Neutrality: Two Librarians And A Microphone Podcast

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Join our team of librarians as we explore trending topics, discuss library industry news, and share expertise on how to build the perfect collections for your community. Life in the information age- preceded by the 24-hour news cycle and the internet- has made the job, gatekeeper of information, more difficult than ever. While improved access has its merits, it has also fragmented our communities.  

Library Neutrality: Tangible Goal or Unattainable Pipedream?

A discourse over the challenges librarians face when weighing values and opinions against community trust and objectivity.

  • Is library neutrality something to be strived for?
  • Should we present both sides, even if we don't agree with one or the other? 
  • Where do we draw the line on protecting patron privacy?




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Jim Heuer [00:00:14] Hey everybody. My name's Jim Heuer. I am the Director of Sales for Ingram Library Services. I'm really pleased to bring you what we hope you will find enjoyable. It will be the next season in our podcast series, Two Librarians and a Microphone. I am not a librarian, I do have two librarians with me. So, we'll satisfy that requirement. And let me introduce them and they can tell you a little bit about themselves. First, Tricia Bengel.

Tricia Bengel [00:00:39] Hi everybody, I'm Tricia Bengel. I'm librarian one and I'm excited to be here with you. I've been a librarian for about 20 years in public and special libraries and a little bit in the vendor world. I've been with Ingram for almost, not quite a year now, as Sales and Services Manager and really excited to talk books with you this season.

Donna George [00:01:03] Hi, I'm librarian two. My name is Donna George. I cut my teeth in the public library world at the age of 17 and I'm glad to still be working with public libraries in my job here at Ingram. I work on products like iPage and a couple of other things that you may have used from us.

Jim Heuer [00:01:21] Excellent. We are really excited to bring you our new season. We've taken a look around the landscape of the United States and what we've realized is, it's really hard to talk about anything going on without looking at the world through the prism of 2018 and some of the new "normals" that have been established. The podcast series that we have is going to examine that. We'll talk about some of the books that would correspond to that. Some of the things going on out in the library world. And kind of how our own experiences are shaping that. So, as I said in Season 3, we feel the pressure of trying to emulate our librarians who came before us and we will try to set the bar a bit higher for the librarians who come behind us. Alright, so sit back, get ready, and here we go with our first segment of Two Librarians and a Microphone. So, with the upcoming ALA Midwinter in Denver 2018, there is the ALA President's Program which has to do all about library neutrality, right? There's been a lot of talk about net neutrality. We're talking about library neutrality. Some of the questions that we have had come up: Is library neutrality a reasonable goal or a naive concept? And talking to Tricia, I know that you have done some research and you've got some thoughts about this. So, posing that question, is library neutrality a realistic goal or a naive concept?

Tricia Bengel [00:02:53] Well, that's really interesting. When Donna and I were reviewing the Midwinter schedule, we started talking about the President's Program and I was really excited and kind of surprised that we were talking about neutrality because I think I had always assumed that librarians must be neutral. I took it as a given. But then the more I started thinking about neutrality and reading articles about librarian neutrality and thinking about the world we live in right now, I started thinking about: Is that just a really naive goal? Is it important? Is it something we should strive for? And so, Donna and I started talking about that some more and she had some interesting anecdotes about that from her early career as a librarian.

Donna George [00:03:46] Yeah, I'd love to share with the listening audience, actually. So, I think I mentioned in my intro that I started working in public libraries at the age of 17. So, I was very impressionable and aside from my parents and teachers at school, the people that I worked with at the public library were the first really influential adults that I was taking cues from about what was appropriate, and what was grown up to do and those kind of things. And I remember one of the first things that my boss told me at the impressionable age of 17, is that I should not put political signs in my yard at home. As a city employee, as a library employee, I should appear to be neutral in matters such as that. The library system I was working in was a city funded entity, so there could be a conflict of interest of sorts if I were to show my cards in an election sign.

Jim Heuer [00:04:39] Wow, that's fascinating. Tricia, I know that in your past you were in the library space during 9/11 and some of the things that happened after there and that certainly also put librarians kind of on the front line of, I don't know if that's neutrality, but some of the... I remember being in the industry and some of the talks centered around the Patriot Act and some of the information looking to be gleaned from a library, and certainly encountered librarians not wanting to give that up. Can you talk a little bit about your experience in that regard?

Tricia Bengel [00:05:15] Yeah. After 9/11, we had a lot of interesting internal conversations amongst library staff. One of them was, at the time, I was in collection development and we were discussing: Do we need to represent multiple sides of 9/11? So, there were a lot of books that came out after 9/11 about it. There were also several books that came out, mostly from the self-published side of the world, in which the writers portrayed 9/11 as an inside job. It was conspiracy theories and talking about that. So, we kept wondering if we needed to include those books in the collection, as well as, the more mainstream books. And so, we ended up not including them, but based on they did not meet our collection development standards. And I always felt like that was sort of a cop-out for the reasons why we didn't include them. We continued to talk about that. At the same time, we were also struggling with the Patriot Act and whether or not we could still say no to the police if they requested patron records of what people were doing on the internet, what they were reading, because we felt like we were, for the first time, sort of on a slippery slope of whether or not we could say no and require a court order. So, it was a really, I would say, interesting time. It was kind of a new world order, because we all wanted to be patriotic, but at the same time we wanted to not give up our library values that we had always embraced. So, I think that was the first time, really, that in my career, I was faced with being on a weird side of both what I believed as a librarian

Tricia Bengel [00:07:30] and what was supposed to be right in fighting terrorism in the country.

Jim Heuer [00:07:36] Donna, you're nodding, go ahead.

Donna George [00:07:38] Yeah, Tricia, I'm so glad you brought that up about reading history. Again, one of the very first things I learned as being a public library employee. The very kind of vague directive that we should appear neutral and impartial with city politics and who we're voting for and those kinds of things. But on the other hand, one of the early things that I learned is that even if a police officer walks in here and asks you what so-and-so has been reading, you cannot tell them. And so, there's always been a lot of, not secrecy, but I think public librarians have been bound to protect the privacy of their patrons. And as I look back on my early career, it's interesting that one was so emphatically vague while the other one was so emphatically specific.

Jim Heuer [00:08:20] How interesting. Tricia, you said something a little bit earlier. We were talking about privacy and that the libraries protect a patron's privacy whether they want them to or not. Or sometimes, to an extent, to a degree, whether they want to or not. But you've also said that there's been some change you've seen in the industry towards that as well, to some degree, right?

Tricia Bengel [00:08:45] Yeah, so this has really become another, sort of, tension we've had between should we protect your privacy even if you don't want us to. Because that's what we are supposed to do. So, I use my mom as an example all the time, because she doesn't listen to these podcasts. But also, she is a voracious library user, she is a voracious reader, and she reads so much she can't really remember every title she's read, so she complains to me constantly that the library will not keep her reading history and tell her if she's checking out a book for a second time, because she thinks that would be a terrific service that libraries should perform. And I am always telling her, "We're doing this to protect your privacy, Mom." Which she just says, "Well, I don't care that you know what I'm reading. I don't care if anyone knows what I’m reading. I want you to tell me if I'm checking out a book again." And so she doesn't really understand the importance of us protecting her privacy. Which is hilarious because we think that's one of the most important things we do. But then, if you start thinking about it even more, Amazon knows what I'm reading and they give me recommendations based on what I've read and I like that. So why am I happy that Amazon does that but I don't want my library to do it?

Donna George [00:10:13] Right. And I've seen, you know, as a patron, as I've shifted from a library employee to a patron, I've noticed that even in the systems that libraries use, that seems to be an option now. As a patron using the OPAC, I can turn that on to keep up with my reading history or not. And it would seem like the default for that, for most vendors, is off. So that's been an interesting evolution to observe as well.

Jim Heuer [00:10:36] And I think that we're not alone in looking at that dichotomy. We did some quick research on the internet and found a couple of pretty competing views, right. A book blog and then some papers that have been published. Tricia, do you want to talk about what we found in the Book Riot blog and what that librarian had to say about...

Tricia Bengel [00:11:02] Right. So, like any good librarians, Donna and I immediately started doing research on neutrality and librarians' opinions. One of the first articles we found was written by a librarian on the website Book Riot. It happens to be a Canadian librarian and she basically said neutrality in the library is B.S. She said that it's just really naive to think that we should be neutral, our patrons don't want us to be neutral, they want to come to a safe environment, and they want to be able to say whatever they want and explore whatever they want. And it is naive to think that we should be neutral. So, she emphatically disagrees that neutrality is something that librarians should embrace. But on the other hand, I think Donna and I were talking again about the opposite side of that.

Donna George [00:12:09] Yeah, so we found plenty of articles supporting the other side and I'll have to say that the one I'm looking at now is very reminiscent of my early learnings too. I've got it here in front of me. It says things like campaign signs, for instance, "May convey a perceived bias to patrons and to the community that the library is for or against a given candidate." And they go on to talk about biased book displays, which I think we also found plenty of examples of. You know, some may call them biased, some may call them bold in today's political climate. But there's plenty of argument, both for and against, library neutrality.

Tricia Bengel [00:12:45] But I think that the interesting thing about these two articles, is that they're both very interesting. One, I bet, has lots more page views because it's very emphatic that neutrality is B.S. The other article by Andrew Hart in Public Libraries is a very measured, very scholarly, it even has footnotes in the article. And so, I bet you anything it's got a lot less traffic. True. Maybe we should incorporate "B.S." into our podcast name to get some clicks.

Jim Heuer [00:13:20] Yeah, there you go. Well, thank you ladies. We've come to the end of our first episode. We will make sure that Tricia's mom subscribes, so that she does listen. The marketing team told me to make sure that we brought that in. Speaking of subscribing, right, we are available to subscribe on iTunes. Use your Apple podcast app. Wherever you find your podcasts, you should be able to find our Two Librarians and a Microphone. And we invite you to tune into the next episode where we talk about fake news and all of the things that that entails, right? That certainly seems to be a trending topic. If you like this, let us know via Facebook, Twitter, you can use the #TheLibraryLife and for old people like me, that would be the pound sign #TheLibraryLife.

Tricia Bengel [00:14:07] The number sign.

Jim Heuer [00:14:08] Yeah, the number sign, there you go. Alright, so once again, thanks everybody. We really hope you enjoyed this and we look forward to talking to you next time.